Recent media reports put into question the future of the U.S.-organized Sons of Iraq (SOI) program. Currently there are approximately 103,000 SOI operating in nine of Iraq’s eighteen provinces. They have been one of the major reasons why violence has dropped so dramatically in Iraq. The United States military was originally hoping that some of the SOI would be integrated into the security forces, while the majority would be given vocational training and public works jobs with the government. Baghdad was always reluctant to go along with this plan, and recent stories point towards Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki ending the whole program and arresting those that are considered threats by the end of the year.
The Crackdown Begins?
As reported here earlier, in the spring of 2008 the first stories appeared that the government was targeting SOI leaders. In April, Abu Abed, the head of the Amiriya Knights in western Baghdad, was forced to flee to Jordan when he found out the government was investigating him for sectarian murders. That same month, a commander in the Lions of Adhamiya in northern Baghdad was arrested for killings and cooperation with the insurgency. The next month, the leader of the Lions was detained for kidnapping, and an Iraqi Army brigade began breaking up the SOI in Abu Ghraib south of Baghdad. At the same time, al-Hayat newspaper reported that the SOI were being told they needed to disband. More worrisome, the United Arab Emirates’ al-Khaleej paper said in July that Maliki was coming under increasing pressure to end the SOI, and had established a committee to look into how to do it. July was also the month that Baghdad launched its latest military operation in troubled Diyala province. The SOI became a target there as well. By August, five senior commanders had been arrested there. The New York Times also said that there was a government wanted list of 650 SOI from Abu Ghraib south of Baghdad and Anbar province. The orders came from the Baghdad Operations Center that answers to Maliki. Finally, there were reports that the government was contemplating a deadline of either October or November for the SOI to either find government jobs or be arrested. At first, these stories appeared anecdotal and not enough to establish a set pattern. However, by the end of summer there were too many to not see that the government was targeting the SOI, a program that they never wanted in the first place.
Origins and Disputes Over The SOI Program
The SOI program originally started in the summer of 2007. That was when General David Petraeus met with his advisors, and decided to try to replicate the Sunni policy that had emerged in Anbar across the country. There, tribal leaders had turned against Al Qaeda in 2005 for their brutal methods and attempts to take over businesses sheikhs ran. Baghdad was not pleased with the program from the get go. In August 2007, General Petraeus said the government supported the program, but he was quickly contradicted by Maliki’s Deputy National Security Advisor Safa al-Sheikh, who said that while the Prime Minister agreed to the program in principle, he would not support it.
That set the pattern for the interaction between the U.S. military and Baghdad over the SOI, the U.S. would announce advances and government support, while Maliki officials and the Prime Minister himself would constantly deride and reject the program. In September 2007, for example, the government set up a committee to integrate the SOI. It was led by Deputy National Security Advisor al-Sheikh, but also included Bassima al-Hairi who was notorious for being sectarian. By June 2008, Maliki had shut it down and a Western official told the Los Angeles Times that the Prime Minister never wanted the committee in the first place, and only did it under U.S. pressure. (The commission has since been restarted.) In November, the U.S. said Baghdad was willing to pay the salaries of the SOI, only to have a government spokesman say that wasn’t true. The next month, Petraeus’ deputy General Ray Ordierno met with Maliki, and got him to agree to integrate about 20% of the SOI into the security forces, while the rest would get public works jobs. A few days later the Defense and Interior Ministries held a joint news conference where they said they would not integrate the SOI. The Deputy National Security Advisor and head of the reconciliation committee al-Sheikh claimed that half of the SOI were insurgents and had ties with Baathists that same month.
By 2008, the U.S. had come up with a new transition plan for the 103,000 SOI they had recruited. The Americans hoped that 17,000 SOI would be integrated into the security forces, while 26,000 would get public works jobs. The remaining 60,000 would be taken over by the government by June 2009. The U.S. also set up two vocational training programs to help the SOI find civilian jobs. The problem was the government never signed off on the program. In July, the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction reported that 19,700 SOI had been integrated. 14,000 had joined the security forces, while the rest had been given other government jobs. Reports by the Institute for the Study of War and Colin Kahl of the Center for New American Security pointed out that only a few hundred of those okayed for the security forces, had actually finished training.
Prime Minister Maliki and other members of his ruling coalition have opposed the SOI for a number of reasons. For the Shiite and Kurdish parties the SOI represent an existential threat. The Shiites and Kurds never want the ancien regime to return to power, and the SOI represent just that. As mentioned earlier, the Deputy National Security Advisor accused the SOI of having ties with Baathists. Many SOI are former insurgents that also carried out sectarian attacks and have blood on their hands, something the Shiites aren’t willing to forget. The Shiites, the Sunnis, and the Kurds, also consider the SOI an immediate political threat. Many of them are forming political parties to run in the provincial elections. Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi’s Iraqi Islamic Party controls Anbar, but only because they were the sole Sunni party not to boycott the January 2005 elections. They are expected to lose control of the province to the Anbar Awakening. In the south, several tribal SOI are forming parties as well to run against the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance. In December 2007, when General Odierno met with Maliki to try to convince him to integrate the SOI, he told the Americans to stop organizing Shiites because they would challenge the ruling parties. The Kurds as well, have told the U.S. not to create SOIs in disputed areas such as Kirkuk and Mosul where the Kurds have annexationist hopes. Finally, after the recent crackdowns in Basra, Sadr City, etc, Maliki believes that the security forces can secure the country without the SOI. This combination of factors seems insurmountable for Iraqi politicians to overcome any time soon. In turn, that will probably doom the SOI if events continue to unfold as they are.
Even some U.S. commanders seem to think this is the end of the road. The U.S. general in charge of northern Iraq has been telling the SOI that the program is coming to an end and they need to find work. Very few fighters have taken up the U.S.’s offer of vocational training however, as it doesn’t hold the same prestige of carrying a gun and securing their neighborhoods. With provincial elections postponed until 2009, and Baghdad wanting to end the SOI by the end of 2008, the door for the SOI to find a political out is closing as well. That seems to only leave three paths for the SOI. One, they can go back to being insurgents and fight the government that is trying to wipe them out. This is problematic because the U.S. has been able to collect a large amount of intelligence on each SOI, which would be used against them if they chose violence. Two, they can give in and be arrested, not something anyone would accept. Finally, they can give up their guns and join the lines of men looking for jobs. With unemployment running as high as 50% or more in some areas, this path offers few opportunities.
This is a bleak and ironic picture for the SOI. Now that the government is finally stepping up to its security responsibilities it has given Prime Minister Maliki an inflated sense of his political and military standing. He is using some of that clout to go after the very program that has helped secure his country. The Americans are stuck in the middle between the two sides. The U.S. can only hope that it will be able to moderate the situation, but the sense of danger the SOI pose to the government appears to be overwhelming. If push comes to shove, the U.S. will have to stand by the government, and help eliminate any SOI that chooses to stand and fight.
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